Rachel Maddow's must-see Jon Stewart interview

In a thrilling face-off, the "Daily Show" star talks with the MSNBC host about news, rallies, Bush and more

By Mary Elizabeth Williams

Senior Writer

Published November 12, 2010 1:40PM (EST)

Ah, so that's what intelligent, reasonable discourse looks like. Haven't seen too much of it these days -- almost didn't recognize it. But on "Rachel Maddow" Thursday, professional "conflictonator" Jon Stewart went head to head with the MSNBC host, and the result was a dizzyingly terrific Rally to Restore Sanity built for two.

Maddow, clearly in defensive mode after Stewart's stinging rebuke to the round-the-clock news media at last month's ballyhooed get-together on the National Mall, came out swinging -- albeit respectfully -- at the "Daily Show" host, deflecting barbs against what he termed the network's "derogatory" attitudes toward political pot-stirrers. And Stewart, for his part, remained stubbornly on the ropes all evening, explaining his motivation for the Rally to Restore Sanity by declaring passionately, "In 12 years, I’d earned a moment to tell people who I was."

It was riveting, at times utterly thrilling stuff, with both sides gracefully doing the dance of abundant, obvious admiration while firmly maintaining their own convictions. This is what happens when people don't scream and hurl nonsense invective at each other. Watch and learn, America.

A wan-looking Stewart -- who admitted he was battling a vicious stomach flu and bragged near the end that this was the longest he'd gone without throwing up in some time -- clearly chose Maddow because he had a few things to get off his chest. On "Maddow," he was free to be something other than the brilliant satirist we know and love on Comedy Central. He was simply Jon Stewart, lamenting to his hostess that "You’re in the playing field; I'm in the stands yelling things." But he seemed nonetheless grateful for the opportunity to explain the motivation for the rally because "People should have a chance to say what they thought it was ... I just want a chance to say what it was, because I made it."

So what was it all about? As Stewart persuasively argued, "We've all bought into the idea that the conflict in the country is left and right, Republicans and Democrats." Furthermore, an insidious, attention-grabbing news media "amplifies a division that I don’t think is the right fight ... [because] both sides have their way of shutting down debate."

"It's become tribal," he declared, and the major culprits aren't Tea Partying loons -- they're the CNNs and Foxes and, yes, MSNBCs of the world. "The problem with a 24-hour news cycle is it's built for a particular thing -- 9/11," he explained, noting sagely that "O.J.'s not going to kill someone every day." Meanwhile, "The real conflict is corruption vs. non-corruption, extremists vs. non-extremists."

The Maddow interview was a stunning example of the increasing greatness of Stewart, a man who, unlike every faux or ostensibly real cable news pontificator out there not named Anderson Cooper, is distinguished by his compassion-rich lack of objectivity. Other pundits may have opinions and stances galore, but few possess Stewart's fearless embrace of that oft-overlooked essential quality -- empathy.

That ability to walk in others' moccasins is his supreme strength -- Stewart does not let anybody off the hook for merely being members of the same choir to which he preaches. "We have a tendency to grant amnesty to people we agree with, and be dismissive of people we don't," he told Maddow, with blistering insight. Later he challenged her, "Do you think the left ever suffers from myopia?"

He was at times maddeningly indulgent, granting reasonable doubt to George Bush for our ongoing nightmare in Iraq and Afghanistan by asking, "What is their intention? Is it to save American lives?" He questioned how helpful it is "if the place you start is 'he’s an evil man who lied to us' ... I do think he believes Sadaam was dangerous." And he told liberal America, to its intense discomfort, "You have to examine your own orthodoxy."

Maddow, meanwhile, was engagingly pugnacious throughout, telling Stewart in no uncertain terms, for example, that Bush’s much justified torture strategy was "wrong for the country and he shouldn't have been doing it" and "I'm happy to scream it." But she also insisted, "I feel like we're doing the same thing. We both have a commitment to not lying, to telling the truth where we see it." Bring on the unironic truthiness!

In the end, there was no shouting, zero cutting of microphones. Instead, there was Stewart, telling Maddow in utter sincerity, "I like you." Undeniably, in many ways they're different sides of the same coin. They're two bright, funny hyperintelligent people who do best when they're sparring -- and yowsa, they're fun to watch. And Stewart's explanation that the rally "was to articulate an intangible feeling that people are having and bring it into focus" seems in many ways a very Maddow thing to say.

They disagreed, at times with great force, about just how evil George Bush really is, the accountability of cable news in polarizing the country, and more. Yet they were throughout it all decent and ungimmicky and relentlessly courteous. It was quite the refreshing novelty. Speaking of his gig as America's premier fly in the media's ointment, Stewart declared modestly, "I feel like I am where I belong. There is no honor in what I do but I do it as honorably as I can." To do anything at all with a self-aware degree of honor is nowadays a rare and extraordinary thing. The execution may not always be flawless and debate may abound, but in a cable television morass of bullies and bigmouths, he and Maddow both prove quiet -- but encouragingly bright -- beacons of hope.

By Mary Elizabeth Williams

Mary Elizabeth Williams is a senior writer for Salon and author of "A Series of Catastrophes & Miracles."

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